A Blanquito In El Barrio

In Memory of Gil Fagiani

blanquito

Poet Extraordinaire and Beautiful Human Being

Gil Fagiani wrote one of the two book reviews on the back cover of Left of the Dial.

I had wanted him to write a book review because one of his own poetry books was titled Serfs of Psychiatry.

That book is an autobiographical account of his earliest job in the mental health field.

A Blanquito in El Barrio graphically conjures his descent into street drug abuse.

Gil is one of the people who lived to tell and was able to stay clean for decades.

He treated me come un figlia.

In his name (as was requested) I’m making a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I urge you to read Blanquito and any other of his books that you can find.

He is the third person I have lost in three years. Each of them to life-ending illnesses.

Our lives are like the song lyrics to “Big Yellow Taxi.” You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. All that remains of paradise in that song was a parking lot.

One day all that will be left of this planet is burnt earth.

It’s time. For days now I’ve been thinking of the quote: “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

You and I don’t know how much time we’ll have here. We don’t know how much time we’ll have with our loved ones, friends, and others we’re close to.

Make every day a day when you wake up and choose to love.

There is no other way to live.

One day things could change. Love is a life preserver. Acceptance is a safety net.

Make every encounter with another person a positive one.

Find the good: In life. In other people. In your situation.

Take a cue from Gil Fagiani’s remarkable life:

Fight the good fight. It isn’t over until it’s over. Treat everyone you meet with kindness.

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Night of the 7 Fishes

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Un Buon Natale Con Italiani!

This photo was shot with my digital camera on Christmas Eve–the Night of the 7 Fishes in coastal Italian families.

You can read about this tradition in my memoir Left of the Dial.

We are from a town near Naples so we are Neapolitan thus we celebrate the holiday with 7 fish–the lobster is the big attraction.

Years ago when I was the Health Guide at the HealthCentral website I researched via a simple Google search the impact of culture on a person’s recovery from a mental health challenge.

Trust me I couldn’t find any studies that corroborated the link between culture and recovery. I couldn’t find this for Italians, Hispanics, African Americans, or any other ethnic folk.

You can read more about Italian American Mental Health in the book Benessere Psicologico: Contemporary Thought on Italian American Mental Health. The book costs $20 and is well worth the splurge.

It was published in November 2013. To this book I contributed a 10-page chapter titled “Recovery is Within Reach.”

Years ago at HealthCentral I did write about the impact of culture on my recovery. I wrote about finding a female Italian American therapist to talk to.

I do think that ethnic identity can have a positive role in helping a person recover.

I stand firm in my assertion that I recovered because of my mother. I recovered because I had the love and support of my close-knit Italian American family.

It’s time to stop judging people. It’s time to stop stereotyping people. We each of us need to see the person first. Not attribute to them a characteristic you think they have just because they’re from a certain ethnic identity.

Which is to say that not all Italians are bigots. A friend of mine who was Sicilian had a woman tell him she couldn’t hang out with him because he was Italian and she was African American. She had always been told to have nothing to do with Italians.

Can you imagine that?

I say: come on over and have some lobster!

Come on over and have some lobster!

Insieme.

We’ll treat you like family.

Buona Pasqua

Buona Pasqua–is Happy Easter in Italian. Though most likely it could be titled Happy Eater.

I went to my cousin’s. Her mother my Aunt and her sister were there. The amount of food could feed a small nation.I knew there would be too much food so I wasn’t worried that I couldn’t eat whatever meat was served–I knew there would be a ton of other food like vegetables. And the antipast’–a banquet before the main meal.

We are Italian, so there was a cheesecake, Russell Stover chocolates, a multitude of cannoli, other pastry, sorbet, chocolate chip cookies…and the list goes on.

It’s all relative…as to who your relatives are…when you are Italian. We consider them as true as blood. An Italian woman I talk to gave me this advice about a guy I like: “Kiss him. You’re Italian. You know how this goes: we’re Italians and we kiss people.”

The spring is coming: beautiful weather to be out and about. The tour guide in Rome told us it’s all “kissy-kissy” when I traveled there.

You turn 50 and think: it’s all about famiglia because you don’t know how much longer you’ll have with them.

I say: honor the parents who gave you birth. Except if there was outright abuse our parents most likely did the best they could. Honor them and protect them and care for them in their old age.

Buona Primavera. A Happy Spring to you!

Sagra del Libro

I sold copies of Left of the Dial at the Italian American Sagra del Libro or sale of the book.

It was early so I ducked into Angelo’s of Mulberry Street.

“Soltanto uno,” I told the white coat waiter. “Only me.”

“To drink?” He ushered me to a table.

“Aqua.” I unwrapped my thick pink boucle scarf and eased out of my coat.

CNN was playing on a TV on the ceiling. I ordered the mezza luna and escarole.

The waiter asked: “Italiano?” “Si,” I told him.

“Dove?” he asked. “Sicily. Naples.” I said. He shook his head.

“Calabria,” I continued. “Mi paesan!” He smiled.

Doppo cena / after supper I bought a pink scarf from a street vendor with the ubiquitous “cashmere” label even though it’s not likely cashmere for $5.

I was the first to read at the Sagra open reading. I read the Chills concert scene from the memoir.

You know it’s too cold when you wear the new scarf inside the coat and the old scarf outside the collar.

Spring is here in three weeks so hopefully the cold will be another season’s memory soon.

The event was filmed so stay tuned for where you can view the video where I’m reading from the book.

Mille grazie to all who stopped by.

Hospitals in Winter

You’re 22 and you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia and start to go down a long and winding road to get to a better life.

One day you turn 50 and are confronted with the reality that you don’t know how long your parents will be here. You don’t think NAMI and other mental health agencies are doing anything to help people older than 50 achieve a better recovery on their own.

I picked up two bereavement and grief pamphlets at the APA convention I attended in 2014 and read them. At HealthCentral I wrote about geriatric psychiatry and recovery at mid life when no one else was tackling these issues.

This is how it plays out:

You visit a person in the hospital. You’re told to go into the solarium while he’s checked on. You don’t sit on the couch. You count the available seating in the room: 15 chairs. You circle around the coffee table over and over.

A TV plays some kind of Christmas sitcom. There’s a remote control built into an electrical outlet on the wall. You channel surf until you hit CNN which is a better though not by much alternative to FoxNews.

All the news reporters have attractive faces. You wonder if being photogenic is written into the job description as one of the requirements for getting a news announcer’s job.

Why aren’t there any plain-looking news announcers? you think.

You’re called back into the room. He’s old; 81 years old. Your mother has brought pignoli cookies and seven-layer cookies for him. The three of you have a brief conversation before you head out to leave. “I love you” you tell him.

The next day you tell your hairdresser. She takes 50 minutes to perfect your new haircut. It looks stunning. It’s better than a trip to the shrink. “I want you to leave here happy,” she tells you.

You duck into a store and buy yourself gifts with the holiday money you were given. It’s just another Christmas in recovery.

Luckily you recovered. What about the others? What will happen when their parents are gone? How will individuals living on SSI and Medicaid be able to function on their own when their caregivers are gone?

Riddle me this Batwoman: who will care about them then when no one cares about them now?

La Notte Del Sette Pesce

The Night of the Seven Fishes / La Notte Del Sette Pesce is an Italian tradition of having fish on Christmas Eve.

Specifically it’s from towns on the seacoast. My mother’s mother / Nonna’s family was from Salerno in Naples on the bay.

I’m 50 now and every year since I was seven we’ve celebrated the seven fishes tradition. That’s 43 years of having lobster on Christmas Eve along with clams mussels shrimp other seafood and angel hair pasta with lobster or marinara sauce.

We are lucky to be able to afford lobster. I refer to this in Left of the Dial.

My contention is that a person can find pockets of joy in the hard times by enjoying a tradition. It doesn’t have to be lobster. It can be celebrating an equinox. It can be by doing volunteer work.

It’s possible to reclaim your self as well as your mental health after you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia. I understand that for some of us our old lives are gone and it seems like we’ve changed into a different person with new limitations.

This could be true yet I make the case for designing your lifestyle around your values and around an identity that is salient for you. As hard as it can be if you ask me celebrating ourselves is the way to go regardless of what has happened to us.

I identify as an Italian American. I identify as a Christian even though I don’t attend church and I’m not a member of any organized religion. I’m also a Fashionista and an Artist/Creative.

Finding an identity that resonates with us if you ask me is the key to transmuting our pain and changing our perception of what we’re capable of.

Some of us are going to have limitations imposed by the illness and others are going to have minimal disruption to our lives. Which is the prime reason I make that case for getting quicker, individualized treatment, appropriate medication, and practical career counseling–this Triangle of Mental Health can allow a person to have an easier time of it in recovery.

I have made this clear more than once.

I’ll go sign off now as I have to get ready to have the fish today.

Buon Natale a Tutti.

Thank You

I want to thank everyone who has read this blog over the years.

Thank you for buying Left of the Dial or for reading the memoir excerpts here if you didn’t buy the book.

I’m trying to line up a featured reader gig for the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) in May. I will tell everyone the information about this if I’m able to get the green light to do this.

2016 is the 25th anniversary of IAWA.

Everyone should take pride in their heritage if you ask me. A few bad apples shouldn’t spoil it for everyone else in this ethnicity.

I once saw a young teen wear a hoodie with bold letters proclaiming: “Proud to be Muslim.” I would like to have a tee shirt that proclaims: “Proud to be Italian.”

You don’t have to be Italian. You can have a different ethnicity. Either way taking pride in where you come from matters if you ask me.

A lot of the customs have gotten lost in translation. I say there’s a beauty in keeping traditions alive.

I wrote years ago at HealthCentral about the recovery strategy of establishing a tradition. I’ll talk about this in detail on Thursday.

Enjoy your day.